Some years ago, I interviewed for a position and was invited to the on-site. My recruiter walked me to the conference room where two people were waiting. After exchanging greetings, one of my interviewers says, “We’re still waiting on a few more people, they’ll be here soon.”
Another person walked in. And another. Yet another.
They just kept coming. Seemingly no end!
Finally, everyone had arrived, and so I counted: 22 people! I later learned that this was the entirety of three different teams, all to come interview me, a lowly engineer, for a couple of hours. Insanity.
This is the panel interview.
What is the panel interview?
An interview with more than three or more interviewers. This format is an easy way to get several perspectives and stakeholders into the interview process without requiring several days of non-stop interviews. It isn’t without its challenges, though.
The panel interview can take a few different formats:
Presentation: The candidate presents something to the panel and answers questions about it. This is a bit like the thesis defense common in Masters and Doctoral programs. For example, for a senior engineering role, you might ask the person to prepare an architecture for a sophisticated, hypothetical application and then present it during the panel interview.
The Gauntlet: The candidate answers question after question from the panel on a range of topics. This can be an incredibly intimidating format for the candidate due to the rapid-fire, all-over-the-place nature of it.
Topical: The candidate answers questions related to a narrow range of topics (or one topic). This is the most common panel format. For example, you might discuss the merits of different deployment methodologies in-depth.
It’s true that a panel interview allows you to get multiple perspectives in the interview at the same time. Rather than two different interviewers asking a similar question from a different perspective, you can get both of them in a single interview and explore both facets of a topic in one interview. This is considerable upside for everyone, as you can get a more holistic answer from a candidate.
I once gave a presentation to a panel of six people. Ahead of the panel, my take-home work was to design a monitoring architecture and strategy for a large-scale network spanning continents and dozens of stakeholders with different use cases. During the panel, I presented my architecture and answered questions about it for hours. Overall, it was one of the best interviews I’ve had. The presentation format was a very useful way to discuss my experience and ability on something that would have a sweeping impact on the organization.
When done well, a panel interview can also save quite a bit of time. Five people in a single panel interview can easily cut the interview time to two hours, rather than having to deal with five, one-hour interviews.
There are some challenges with a panel interview, though.
They can be rather expensive for the company to conduct. Putting multiple engineers into an interview at the same time means business-as-normal could completely halt during that time. Some companies might find that they’re putting their entire team into an interview at once, so everything stops while the interview is in session.
A more significant concern is when your interviewers aren’t experienced in how to run a panel interview effectively. When you have five or six people on a panel, it can be difficult to determine who is asking questions and when leading to uncomfortable situations for the candidate when two interviewers start trying to ask questions at the same time. Because of this, a panel interview can be somewhat unwieldy without proper preparation.
Lastly, the nature of a panel interview is inherently intimidating, and without careful attention paid to the experience, it can feel awkward (at best) or even adversarial (at worst) pretty quickly. Having a moderator with a friendly demeanor is an excellent way to make sure it remains congenial, and the candidate doesn’t get completely overwhelmed by it. When I interviewed with that panel of 22 people, the room was so packed that there was standing room only. Some people didn’t speak at all, but there seemed to have been no preparation by the panelists for the topics of discussion. As a result, I was answering questions that had no rhyme or reason to them and continually turning my head back and forth to answers questions from my left and my right. Overall, it was not a great experience for myself, and I can’t imagine it was a valuable interview for the people present either. With only a few changes, it could have made for an incredibly useful interview for both sides.
A panel interview is a great interview format, but it isn’t without its challenges. With some careful preparation, however, it can be a valuable tool for interviewing some roles.
The key takeaways for a great panel interview are:
- No more than six people on a panel. Any more than that and it becomes difficult to manage.
- Go longer than an hour so you can really take advantage of having multiple perspectives. I recommend aiming for 2-3 hours (with bathroom breaks!).
- Every panelist should be prepared. Ensure everyone on the panel knows what the topics of discussion are and what they are assessing. Meet as a group before the interview to ensure everyone is on the same page.
- Be cautious about the candidate’s experience, as a panel can be intimidating and overbearing even for the most extroverted candidate.